Turkey's official religious ministry, the Directorate of Religious Affairs, often called Diyanet, has issued a report about the Islamic State. Titled “The Basic Philosophy and Religious References of Daesh,” the 40-page document explains how IS deviates from Islamic norms, wreaks carnage on innocent people and defames the name of Islam. It also underlines the differences between the more moderate tradition of Islam practiced in Turkey and the fanaticism of IS. The report is currently available only in Turkish, but English, Arabic and Kurdish versions are reportedly coming soon.
The Diyanet conspicuously uses the term Daesh, which is the Arabic equivalent of the English acronym ISIS and Turkish ISID. The latter is in fact the most commonly used term in Turkey, but the Turkish government has lately opted for Daesh, probably to avoid repeating a reference to Islam to which Turkish society may immediately relate. It is also notable that the report came out at a time when the Turkish government has finally joined the military intervention led by the United States.
The basic thesis of the report is that IS “lacks the appropriate methodology” in interpreting Islam and “instrumentalizes religion” for its own political purposes. It underlines that the group is based on “political Salafism,” which it criticizes as lacking the wisdom of mainstream Sunni Islam enriched by theology and Sufism. The report also argues that IS displays a dogmatic militancy akin to that of the Khawarij, a fierce sect in early Islam that excommunicated and targeted fellow Muslims.
In a key paragraph, the report summarizes what is wrong with the literalist and dogmatic strains that have appeared at different times since the beginning of Islam, finally culminating in IS:
“Decontextualizing religious references and perceiving them as direct articles of law, having only nominal and literal connections with the Holy Quran and virtual and formal connections with Sunnah, rejecting reason and abilities bestowed upon mankind by Allah and pitting them against divine inspiration, this mentality has marginalized all other Muslims throughout history in order to monopolize the interpretation of [Sunnism] which represents mainstream Islam.”
The emphasis here on “pitting [reason] against divine inspiration” is a critique that targets not only IS, but less militant expressions of Salafism as well, which the report rightly ties to “Wahhabi interpretations of the Hanbali school.” By implication, the Diyanet argues that “reason” and “revelation” are not contradictory but complementary — as argued for centuries by the rationalists of Islam, including some contemporary Turkish Islamic scholars.
But why did this dogmatic Salafism appear in such a militant fashion under the banner of IS, right near Turkey, in the 21st century? Here, the report at least partly blames the West and its colonial adventures in the region. It underlines the role of the US occupation of Iraq in creating a fertile ground for IS, which is arguably a fact. It also argues that “conspiracies and manipulations” of colonial forces are at play in intentionally creating and directing IS. Yet, despite this conspiracy theory — which is very common in Turkey when it comes to explaining IS, especially in the pro-government media — the report also calls for self-criticism among Muslims:
“Despite all external factors, conspiracies and manipulation, the nation of Islam must focus on the internal reasons of this fact and take the issue of Daesh upon itself. The case of Daesh and similar ‘takfiri’ tendencies cannot be dismissed merely as ‘conspiracy of foreign powers.’ Even if it is indeed a conspiracy, we should ask ourselves, ‘Don’t we have any flaws that allow the making of this conspiracy?’”
Another notable aspect of the report is its emphasis on the brotherhood of Sunnis and Shiites, put in respectful terms. It therefore opposes the sectarian tide in the Middle East. It also emphasizes “No one can excommunicate another Muslim,” in clear defiance of the Salafist approach that condemns Shiites as apostates. The report condemns IS attacks on Christians and the persecution of Yazidis, “who had received nothing but kindness from Muslims for centuries.”
Caner Taslaman, a popular modernist theologian, discussed the report with Al-Monitor. He welcomed the document, but he also said that it “fails to address some of the roots of IS militancy in mainstream Sunni Islam,” such as the idea that apostates deserve to be killed. Turkey’s religious opposition to IS ideology, Taslaman noted, should be deeper and more brave.
That criticism is valid — and not just for Turkey’s Diyanet, but for all mainstream Sunni authorities. For as extreme as it is, IS indeed refers to some troubling verdicts in mainstream Islamic law, as clearly seen with the verdict on apostates. IS condemns as "apostates" all Muslims who stand in its way and sometimes kills them. This tafkiri zeal is denounced by almost all Sunni authorities, who remind us that one cannot so easily condemn other Muslims as infidels. But the very idea that apostates deserve the death penalty is rarely questioned, and it is the law of the land in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Sudan, Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen. It is a capital offense in Iran, too, for mainstream Shiite jurisprudence is no different on this matter from its Sunni counterpart.
The Diyanet, whose body of scholars includes reformists who do question such troubling aspects of traditional Islamic law, can do a better job in addressing such fundamental problems when facing IS. In that sense, this new report on IS may prove more promising if it is only a beginning. It is a welcome contribution, for sure. But a more detailed refutation of not just IS but all groups and regimes that employ violence and repression in the name of Islam is sorely needed.